What do your tastes say about you? Beer is a jack of all trades that is loved across all occasions, from backyard barbecues to sporting events. Hard seltzers represent the democratization of alcohol, bringing the experience to a much wider audience, many of whom have traditionally been reticent drinkers.
And then there are cocktails. Cocktails lend themselves to an air of sophisticated taste. From the tried and true dirty martini, margarita, or old-fashioned, to something more novel like gin infused with lemon and lavender, cocktails require drinkers to embrace a sense of exploration and adventure.
Given that spirit of adventure, canned, ready-to-drink (RTD) cocktails have emerged over the last few years as a truly viable alternative to in-house mixology. In their modern iteration, RTD cocktails can be every bit as strong, flavorful, elegant, and unique as their bar-made counterparts.
Today, we’re going to take a high-level overview of the burgeoning RTD industry with a specific focus on the freshness factor, i.e., how long canned cocktail drinks actually last on the shelf.
What is an RTD Cocktail?
Before we get into the ins and outs of the RTD drink aging process, let’s take a minute to define what the ready-to-drink industry actually entails.
Over the last five years, the canned cocktail industry has grown exponentially. While there is some precedent for bottling unique drink mixtures dating all the way back to the 1800s, the movement began growing in earnest somewhere around 2016.
In fact, according to Seven Fifty, RTD canned cocktails experienced an incredible 226% growth between their modern introduction and 2021, becoming a $9.6 billion dollar industry. It’s an industry that shows no signs of stopping or slowing anytime in the near future.
We know that the RTD industry is surging, but what exactly defines it? In short, the modern canned cocktail includes premium liquors, liqueurs, syrups and bitters at perfectly balanced proportions, perfectly designed for portability. They’re just like the cocktails you’d find in a bar, but let’s take a look at precisely how long the canned versions last.
The Difference Between Shelf Life and Expiration
There’s an adage that guides the world of high-quality mixology: the fresher the ingredients, the better the cocktail. From fresh, locally-sourced produce such as mint leaves, grapefruit, orange slices, and fresh-squeezed fruit juice to fresh brewed coffee, the ingredients that you use in your cocktails are your mixologist’s calling card. But freshness comes at a cost if you want to package the cocktail to be enjoyed later.
The term “fresh” implies that the product is free from preservatives and other artificial ingredients, but that also means that those products won’t last as long before spoiling. This may not be much of an issue in your own bar, but what about a canned cocktail?
When we talk about how long you can expect a product to last, you’ll often hear two terms being used interchangeably: shelf life and expiration date. And while the layman may use them synonymously, there are some key differences that you should be aware of.
Think of the term “shelf life” as a continuum. The longer that particular product sits on the shelf –or in your bar’s inventory– the more its overall quality will diminish. Once shelf life has eroded, expect the quality of the item to taste to be off-putting.
Expiration dates, on the other hand, include an element of safety in their definition. Once an item reaches its expiration date, there are health concerns with consuming that particular item. Therefore, when evaluating cocktail ingredients, both metrics should be taken into account.
How Do Ready-to-Drink Cocktails Age?
Now that we understand how the quality of ingredients is affected over time, let’s take a look at how RTD canned cocktails actually age. Depending on the type of consumer packaged good (CPG), i.e., beer, soda, energy drinks, etc., shelf life and expiration date may be radically different.
For example, sodas and other sugar-heavy carbonated drinks have a relatively short shelf-life. These products can go flat after only a few months in the can, especially if they aren’t stored properly. They are, however, safe to drink if flat soda is your thing. Bottled sodas are different though due to the chemical reaction caused by light.
Beers, liquors, and other canned alcoholic drinks are a different animal altogether. Canned alcoholic drinks’ shelf life may be only 6-8 months, but there’s typically no expiration date for the alcohol itself.
The problem you run into with RTD cocktails is the expiration date of some ingredients, such as 100% real lime juice, that are used in the drink. Obviously, pure ingredients such as these have a far shorter shelf life –and more extended expiration date– than the alcohol itself.
Many RTD cocktails run into the problem of narrow shelf life when it comes to using real ingredients. At best, many of these ingredients will only retain their quality for a few months before expiring altogether. Instead of worrying about it, some brands use artificial ingredients, “natural” flavors, and preservatives to extend the lifespan of their products, and the majority of brands don’t bother with using real juice and citrus. However, there are cutting-edge products on the market that use proprietary canning techniques in order to extend the life of real ingredients like 100% real lime juice that can extend the shelf life of the beverage for up to a year.
What Happens If a Ready-to-Drink Cocktail Is Past Its Prime?
So what happens to a pre-mixed, canned cocktail once it goes past the “best consumed by” date? There’s always been a robust discussion surrounding the topic of shelf life versus expiration date. Based on the aforementioned subheadings, we have to be clear about whether we are talking about the shelf life or the expiry. Let’s also break it down based on the alcohol itself and the bespoke ingredients used to garnish the cocktail.
In the case of expired shelf life, not much happens to the alcohol itself. We’ve all heard the old saying, “Aged like fine wine.” As long as the canned product stays sealed, the alcohol will generally appreciate in taste and quality, and at the very least, the taste will not suffer much.
Please note, this is only applicable to wines and fine spirits; beers and seltzers will lose their carbonation after their shelf life expires and will eventually pick up a muted, less flavorful taste. The fresh ingredients are a different story, however.
As previously mentioned, fresh ingredients such as lime or lemon juice are different. Once the shelf life is reached, the quality of the flavor rapidly decreases. Once it expires, however, chemical processes take over, and the juice breaks down, losing its desired tartness.
A lot of manufacturers get around this by using artificial flavorings full of citric acid. While this may ultimately extend the product’s shelf life, it is a mark of lower quality and a move you won’t see some high-end RTD manufacturers making.
So how do you get the most longevity out of your RTD product? Below, we’ve outlined some key storage tips to help ensure you enjoy your purchase in its entirety.
FIFO, which stands for “first in, first out” is a term that’s native to the retail world. It’s a simple concept where the first items that you receive in your inventory are the first items that you sell. The idea here is to reduce the potential for wasted, expired products.
As standard operating procedures go, FIFO is also applicable to your own stock of RTD canned cocktails. Whether you run a bar, arena, or another venue with concessions, or you’re just the average end user, FIFO can ensure the quality of your canned cocktails.
Store in a cool, dry place
It should go without saying, but in order to maintain superior freshness for as long as possible, all your RTD cocktails should be stored in cool, dry conditions. Despite being inside a sealed container, ambient conditions still play a part in the degradation of the contents inside. Light, condensation, and heat can all speed up the expiry process.
The refrigerator is your friend
The best place you can store your canned cocktails is in the refrigerator, mostly because they’re chilled and ready to go when you are. Unlike beer, seltzers and carbonated ready-to-drink beverages, non-carbonated drinks can go in and out of refrigerated space without degrading.
Only open the cocktail when you’re ready to drink it
Nothing compromises the integrity of your pre-mixed cocktail quite like opening it and then walking away for an extended period of time.
Everyone has moments in life when they’re enjoying a drink and life gets in the way. You may open one last RTD cocktail without finishing it, and that’s ok. If you do this, the best place to store your opened container is in the refrigerator. Don’t let too much time go by, however. The cocktail’s shelf life will decrease rapidly once the can is opened, muting the cocktail’s flavor.
Do the Ingredients Impact the Product’s Longevity?
At last, we arrive at the canned cocktail’s central paradox, at least where bars, venues, and other retailers are concerned: using fresh, superior ingredients often diminishes both the beverage’s shelf life and its expiration date.
So how do you deliver a high-caliber experience without sacrificing the product’s longevity? After all, you don’t want to flush away operating costs on inventory that will quickly spoil or serve your party guests beverages with diminished flavor.
Fortunately, not all RTD canned cocktails are created equally. There are products on the market, such as Post Meridiem Spirits’ award-winning canned cocktails, that are leading the industry in ways to make phenomenal flavor last and last and last.
Using our proprietary techniques and premium ingredients, including liqueurs, distilled spirits, bitters, and 100% real juice, we are able to extend the shelf life and expiry of our top-shelf canned cocktail products to last up to a year before losing flavor, all without using preservatives or artificial flavors. For more information on our full product lineup and to find a retail location near you, visit us online today.